Arizona Artbeat: Artist Betye Saar

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See how 90-year-old artist Betye Saar takes everyday objects and turns them into statements about racism, religion and more.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of Arizona Artbeat focuses on artist Betye Saar, who takes every day objects and turns them into compelling statements about racism, religion, and life in general. Now in her 90th revolution around the sun as she calls it, Saar has embarked on a solo show, the Scottsdale museum of contemporary art. Producer Shana Fischer and langston fields have more.

Video: At an age when most people are slowing down, Betye Saar shows no signs of letting up. At 90 years old, Saar is headlining an exhibition entitled, Still Tickin'. It's a retrospective of her 60 years as an artist or as curator Sara Cochran calls her, a joyous rebel.

Sara Cochran: Definitely she's an activist. She is someone who has had an active tendency but I think the brilliance of Betye Saar is that she's never been militant. It has always been -- there's been a lot of honey.

Betye Saar: So I guess that would be my purpose of being an artist, is to create objects, environments, pieces of art that create an emotion, or people have some reaction to. Doesn't always mean that they have to like it. But they react to the work.

Video: Rather than display the art work chronologically, still ticking is broken up into themes. The bridge of memory looks at Saar's life. Her earliest artwork is on display here, a drawing from when she was a young girl and hung conspicuously at a child's height. Saar began creating art back in the 1960s. She started off as a print-maker, and soon found herself drawn to a technique called, assemblage which incorporates three-dimensional objects into a piece. She scours flea markets and thrift stores to find the objects. She also incorporates family heirlooms and photos.

Betye Saar: What inspires a piece is the material. I really work from the materials. I collect a lot of materials.

Video: Among the pieces inside the mysticism and magic room, is a large scale mural created during her residency at MIT. She uses circuit boards alongside amulets to depict a cityscape.

Sara Cochran: The real magic and I do believe there is magic inside of Betye Saar's work is she is someone who spends a lot of time with found objects, she spends a lot of time looking for objects, and Betye Saar has this mystical belief that objects hold onto the experiences and ideas and identities of those who have loaned them previously.

Video: Saar has long been fascinated by mysticism. Whether it's taro cards she uses on a card table turned sculpture or an alter that she created where visitors are encouraged to leave an offering.

Betye Saar: Bottom line, what I think about my art, I try to creating some that expresses beauty, and at the same time, has a mystery behind it.

Video: But that's not to say that Saar has shied away from showing the ugly side of humanity, she's known for work that depicts racial themes. She became an artist shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Betye Saar: I was very emotional about that, and seeing the photographs of how people who protested and were fighting for the civil rights, were persecuted with dogs and everything.

Video: In her first widely recognized assemblage, called the him abrasion of Liberation of aunt Jemima, Saar took an Aunt Jemima doll, long seen as a racist stereotype, and put a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. Turning the character from a victim into a Warrior. Logs of innocence as a young girl's christening gown with epithets printed on it hanging above a stool.

Betye Saar: And more or less, my work is political, regardless whether it uses derogatory images because it's mostly, I feel, mostly about the planet being holistic, and everyone caring for each other, and caring for the planet, which in a way, is considered dangerous.

Video: Still ticking takes its name from a clock sculpture seen as a eulogy to Saar's late husband, Richard. It also, perhaps, can be seen as a nod to the singularity and longevity that is Saar herself.

Betye Saar: But I was never part of the mainstream. I don't consider myself as mainstream because most artists, conceptual, it's about the mind. But, I am about the spirit. And I think that has started when I was a young artist but it just gets stronger, and I feel like I still have things to say. Hopefully, time will not wear out.

Ted Simons: Betye Saar is at the Scottsdale contemporary art, go to I'm Ted Simons, you have a great evening.

Video: Arizona Horizon is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS. Members of your PBS station. Thank you.

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